Living on a farm is more enriching than living in a city.
Nowadays, everyone-loves tapioca. Tapioca is carried under the arms, on the head and shoulders. Tapioca is the only subject of conversation in the kitchen, in buses and at weddmgs. All that is discussed is tapioca, tapioca and tapioca. Tapioca is even the subject of dreams.
One day, accompanied by two of my friends, one of whom was a girl, we went to search for tapioca. We went to Kebun Melayu in Geylang Serai. It was midday. The weather was extremely hot and we perspired profusely. But because we wanted to ﬁll our baskets, we carried on. We sought permission from the clerk there to buy tapioca. However, we were informed that all the tapioca had finished but that if we still wished for some, we should look for Wak Ali, a generous farmer who kept a lot of tapioca. The three of us who were dressed smartly in well ironed clothes proceeded to search for the farmer Whatever happened, we told ourselves, we must ﬁll our baskets with tapioca even if we were forced to pull them out without informing anyone.
A breeze blew over the farm, though it was very hot. The view before us was vast. On the right and left of our paths were green tapioca plants which looked like a beautiful carpet swaying. Only the patches of black objects revealed little huts on the farm.
The mud, dirty drains and dried coconut leaves were no obstacles to our well polished shoes. Thorns and twigs pricked our new and clean trousers. But we trudged on because we had to get to the farmer, otherwise our baskets would remain empty. We walked a long distance, exploring deeper into the extensive farm, yet we didn’t come across a single soul. We continued treading…only then did we see a farmer attending to his beds using a cangkul. There were also children looking over ducks and geese swimming in a canal. They were not surprised to see us – well dressed people from the city who had come to look for tapioca on their farm.
At that moment, I felt as if I was intruding into their land, their right. Our attire and the jewellery which adorned my female companion coupled with her disposition did not beﬁt the condition we were in. We were out of place on this tapioca farm, walking over mud, and dead coconut leaves. But what to do! All because of tapioca.
Not long after, we arrived at the hut of Wak Ali, and realised that we had been mistaken. The farmer received us warmly. “Welcome to the hut”, he said happily.
“What brings you all here?” he asked.
“We only wanted to get some tapioca,” we replied.
“Ah, tapioca,” he remarked.
The farmer mentioned the word “tapioca” just as we would say “l want to go to the movies”, as if it was all too familiar. We however stammered in mentioning the word “tapioca” anxiously, fearful lest his reply would be that “tapioca is fmished.”
He had been digging in the heat of the sun. His body oiled with perspiration and without a shirt on, was dirty with mud.
We shooked hands. Wak Ali’s hands were stained with mud but we felt as if our own hands were dirty! He smiled happily as he welcomed us visitors and pointed us to the nearby huts. “Please come in ” he said, “my wife is not at home. She went out early in the morning to look for her duck which has been missing for two days,” he said as he showed us into his hut.
While inside, he busily arranged the furniture, cleaned the table and invited us to sit down. Feeling embarrassed, we took our seats respectively. He then called out to his children, who were outside. A little while later, his children returned home running. “Go and fetch your mother. Tell her we have visitors.”
The children dashed out and returned later accompanied by their mother who appeared panting. She was carrying a child. We stood up and my female companion shook her hand. She was equally friendly, laughing as she urged us not to be shy.
Smoke rose in the kitchen, a sign that the inmates of the house were preparing refreshments for us. We were warmly entertained by Wak Ali and his wife, both of whom
kept peeping at us now and then from the kitchen with smiling faces. We began to feel more at ease and were no longer embarrassed.
We started chatting amongst ourselves happily. While talking, I rested on Wak Ali’s ‘ambin’ (a raised platform for sitting or resting). Then I opened the windows which had been closed and gazed at the vast farm before me. It was covered with so much greenery that the main road could no longer be seen. The sound of motocars, lorries and buses in Geylang could not be heard, only the whisper of the winds, like words, ﬁlled our ears. Wak Ali offered me a pillow and laid down a straw mat. He was happy to see me make myself at home in his old hut.
My female companion had gone to the. kitchen to converse with Wak Ali’s wife while the other was playing dice with the farmers elder child.
Coffee had already been served together with some water to wash our hands. Ther farmer then went into the hut and a moment later came out with a plate of roasted tapioca and invited us to eat the simple refreshments he had prepared “Try it. This is roasted tapioca.” We each took a piece.
“Tastes like roasted fish, Wak,” I said
“Tasty,” remarked my friend.
Wak Ali’s wife was with us carrying her child. We tried to tease the child. The child who was not afraind, was stout and intelligent.
“Tapioca Model,” I remarked as I ate the tapioca in my hand. Wak Ali laughed heartily. “Not model V-8 anymore Wak,” Interrupted my friend. All of us laughed. We drank coffee and pinched the tapioca until….
I lay down again. Amidst the peaceful atmosphere my eyes began to feel heavy. Both my friends had gone out. THeir laughter and giggles were only faintly heard. The sound of their digging the soil could also be barely heard. It seemed like they were learning to use the cangkul while teaching one another.
Apparently, one had remarked that the other had never hel a cangkul in his life because he was terrified of worms but was now digging for tapioca. The friend in turn insisted that his grandparents were farmers but because they now lived in the city, he had no opportunity to use a cangkul.
Soon, their voices could no longer be heard and I was fast asleep. I had probably been sleeping for fifteen minutes because when I awoke, they had entered the house, their sleeves folded up like people who have been hard at work.
Our three baskets were filled with tapioca and tapioca shoots as well. There were also bananas in addition to several chicken eggs.
We conversed again – visitors and master of the house. This time there was more familiarity and happiness since we had gotten to know one another, so much so we felt as if we were friends of four or five years.
My female companion did not want to leave. She said she wished to stay in the hut for a month or two. She wanted to use the cangkul to dig the earth every morning and night. She has become tapioca crazy, we teased, but she certainly appeared determined to become a farmer.
Seeing our baskets ﬁlled up, which meant that the supply of tapioca would not run out for a day or two, we knew that the time has come for us to leave. We also felt embarrassed to remain since the farmer and his family had not had their lunch. We gave our heartfelt thanks to the farmer and his family, “Come again when you are free” said the farmer and his wife as they shook our hands. We presented a ﬁve dollar note to the farmers eldest child. The farmer burst out laughing. We were uncertain whether he laughed because he was happy or because he was amused at seeing us pay ﬁve dollars for three baskets of tapioca, bananas and eggs,
“Why do you pay?” asked his wife.
“It’s all right auntie, you must be exhausted having to serve us,” I replied. The farmer’s son held the red note and ran outside. He threw it up, it was blown by the wind. Because the wind was strong, the note ﬂew away and eventually landed in the ditch. Wak Ali’s child ran after the money and brought it back to his father.
“Father, look, the money is wet, it may be worthless,” he complained to his father in a rather sad voice.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter, it will dry up again,” his father replied.
But the boy was not consoled and he began to cry. We were anxious and tried to comfort him. Wak Ali laughed.
“Eh, look at those,” he said, as he pointed to our baskets ﬁlled with tapioca.
“Look at those,” he said again, “this wet paper is still valuable…but it cannot match the contents of the baskets … Those are worth more. This is not!” he said in a shrill voice as he continued laughing.
We started to leave the farmer and his family. The boy looked towards our direction.
“Come, I will dry it in the sun”, said Wak Ali as he took the note from the hands of his child.
By Abdul Samad Ismail